By Stanford MLK Institute
Monday January 21, 2019
On 4 April 1967 Martin Luther King jr. delivered his seminal speech at Riverside Church condemning the Vietnam War.
Declaring “my conscience leaves me no other choice,” King described the war’s deleterious effects on both America’s poor and Vietnamese peasants and insisted that it was morally imperative for the United States to take radical steps to halt the war through nonviolent means (King, “Beyond Vietnam,” 139).
King’s anti-war sentiments emerged publicly for the first time in March 1965, when King declared that “millions of dollars can be spent every day to hold troops in South Viet Nam and our country cannot protect the rights of Negroes in Selma” (King, 9 March 1965).
King told reporters on Face the Nation that as a minister he had “a prophetic function” and as “one greatly concerned about the need for peace in our world and the survival of mankind, I must continue to take a stand on this issue” (King, 29 August 1965).
In a version of the “Transformed Nonconformist” sermon given in January 1966 at Ebenezer Baptist Church, King voiced his own opposition to the Vietnam War, describing American aggression as a violation of the 1954 Geneva Accord that promised self-determination.
In early 1967 King stepped up his anti-war proclamations, giving similar speeches in Los Angeles and Chicago.
The Los Angeles speech, called “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam,” stressed the history of the conflict and argued that American power should be “harnessed to the service of peace and human beings, not an inhumane power [unleashed] against defenseless people” (King, 25 February 1967).
On 4 April, accompanied by Amherst College Professor Henry Commager, Union Theological Seminary President John Bennett, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, at an event sponsored by Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, King spoke to over 3,000 at New York’s Riverside Church.
The speech was drafted from a collection of volunteers, including Spelman professor Vincent Harding and Wesleyan professor John Maguire.
King’s address emphasized his responsibility to the American people and explained that conversations with young black men in the ghettos reinforced his own commitment to nonviolence.
King followed with an historical sketch outlining Vietnam’s devastation at the hands of “deadly Western arrogance,” noting, “we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor” (King, “Beyond Vietnam,” 146; 153).
To change course, King suggested a five point outline for stopping the war, which included a call for a unilateral ceasefire.
To King, however, the Vietnam War was only the most pressing symptom of American colonialism worldwide. King claimed that America made “peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments” (King, “Beyond Vietnam,” 157).
King urged instead “a radical revolution of values” emphasizing love and justice rather than economic nationalism (King, “Beyond Vietnam,” 157).
The immediate response to King’s speech was largely negative.
Both the Washington Post and New York Times published editorials criticizing the speech, with the Post noting that King’s speech had “diminished his usefulness to his cause, to his country, and to his people” through a simplistic and flawed view of the situation (“A Tragedy,” 6 April 1967).
Similarly, both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Ralph Bunche accused King of linking two disparate issues, Vietnam and civil rights.
Despite public criticism, King continued to attack the Vietnam War on both moral and economic grounds.
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